Sid Ryan: the final roar of the socialist lion?

Can Ryan ride the new populist, nationalist and anti-establishment wave that’s sweeping through western democracies – as a socialist?

sid ryanTORONTO, Ont. Jan. 31, 2017 /Troy Media/ – The world has understandably been consumed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s first days in office. Controversial decisions, including renegotiating trade deals and stricter rules for immigration, have created a tsunami-like media frenzy.

Yet while so many were engulfed by a range of Trump-sparked emotions from total angst to partial schadenfreude, other intriguing news stories were occurring – one of them in Canada.

Former labour union leader Sid Ryan is considering a run for the federal New Democratic Party leadership. This is partially due to the response to a website (www.sidryanforndp.ca) posted last week by some of his supporters. Endorsements ranged from former federal and provincial NDP politicians and candidates, to current party members and union activists.

The former Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario and Ontario Federation of Labour president said during a Jan. 23 interview with the Globe and Mail’s Gloria Galloway that the website’s creators “have put together a platform that reflects the values and the principles that I fought for.” With this in mind, “I am giving it consideration” because there is “a real opportunity for a party of the left that goes back to its socialist roots and starts to articulate those kinds of policies.”

He has a point.

I’ve known Ryan for years. He’s an intelligent and engaging person. We’ve appeared on TV panels together and chat every so often. (Most conversations relate to our shared interest in a U.K. soccer team, Liverpool FC, rather than politics.) In spite of our ideological differences, we get along and have always had, as he correctly noted on Twitter recently, “principled disagreements.”

Ryan is, in many ways, one of the few remaining socialist lions in Canada. He strongly supports the working class and labour unions. He champions the poor and downtrodden. As well, he has more than a casual distrust of big business, capitalism and the free-market economy.

His views and values would have perfectly fit in the NDP’s predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. They would have also blended in nicely with the manifestos of former party leaders like Tommy Douglas and David Lewis.

Alas, Ryan’s socialist principles don’t necessarily mesh with the NDP’s social democratic values.

The NDP was one of the few socialist/social democratic parties to reject the Third Way, which modernized progressive politics and led to successful politicians such as former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair. Yet, it did shift under the two most recent party leaders, Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair. They both understood that the NDP needed to work within the global marketplace, support fair trade and small doses of capitalism, and defend small business and the middle class.

So Layton and Mulcair toned down the rhetoric of socialism (which historically opposes the social order) and increased the reach of social democracy.

If Ryan chooses to run, his strategy would be the opposite. He would attempt to ride the new populist, nationalist and anti-establishment wave that’s sweeping through western democracies, albeit on the back of an old, left-wing political philosophy.

It would likely end up being a similar campaign model to the one employed by Bernie Sanders, the 75-year-old “democratic socialist” Vermont senator who threw Hillary Clinton for a loop during the Democratic presidential primaries.

Could it work in Canada?

There are various pitfalls. Ryan has run for political office five times and never won. (Then again, John Diefenbaker lost on multiple occasions but eventually became prime minister.) He has his share of friends and rivals within the NDP and labour movement. His political views are old-fashioned and may not appeal to modern left-wingers. He’s also made some critical comments about Israel that got him into hot water.

Regardless, it would be foolish for anyone to dismiss him.

If there’s one thing we can learn from Trump’s stunning victory, it’s to expect the unexpected in today’s political landscape. Sid Ryan as federal NDP leader would certainly fit the bill.

Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. Michael is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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